Over-Dependence on the Internet Could Spell Disaster
Is the Internet too big for its britches? Danny Hillis, inventor, engineer and computer programmer, thinks it might be. He recently spoke to an audience at the TED2013 Conference in Long Beach, Calif. about the vulnerabilities of the Internet and why governments and organizations should be taking steps to secure alternative information and communications systems for the future.
Hillis, who is best known for his breakthrough developments in the field of parallel computing and his work as a Disney Imagineer, believes that the world’s increasing dependence on Internet-based technologies is problematic.
“I think we are setting ourselves up for a kind of disaster,” Hillis said. “Like the disaster we had in the financial system, where we take a system that’s basically built on trust- was basically built for a smaller-scale system- and we’ve kind of expanded it way beyond the limits of how it was meant to operate.”
Just what kind of disaster does Hillis have in mind? He cites several ways in which the Internet has proven vulnerable to both cyber attacks and simple human-computer communication errors in recent years.
In 2008, an error in the Pakistani government’s Internet censoring department caused a YouTube outage throughout most of Asia. Hillis also cites an instance, several years back, in which all flights west of the Mississippi River were grounded because of a bug in a single routing card at the Salt Lake City airport.
A more recent example of Internet vulnerability is last year’s rerouting of large amounts of information through China- including sensitive communications between United States army installations. Hillis said that although the Chinese government claimed at the time that this rerouting was simply a mistake, it’s not hard to imagine a similar thing happening for more sinister purposes.
The real issue with the Internet, according to Hillis, is that even non-Internet-based systems are beginning to use the Web for parts of their operation. Buying gas, flying on an airplane, even making a telephone call-all of these operations are increasingly dependent on Internet-based technologies.
“All of our systems, more and more, are starting to use the same technology,” Hillis said, “And starting to depend on this technology. And so even a modern rocket ship these days actually uses Internet protocol to talk from one end of the rocket ship to the other. That’s crazy. It was never designed to do things like that.”
What Hillis thinks the world needs is a kind of back-up system for the Internet. He doesn’t believe such a system needs to be expensive or even technologically advanced. In fact, one of his suggestions is to repurpose older technologies, like the existing wireless infrastructure already in place in the U.S. and other countries.
“What we need is something that doesn’t necessarily have to have the performance of the Internet,” Hillis said. “But the police department has to be able to call up the fire department even without the Internet. And the hospitals have to order fuel oil.”
Hillis also said that getting such a system up and running isn’t an insurmountable problem. In fact, he believes that all it will take for the world to come up with a Plan B is getting enough people to see the vulnerabilities of Plan A.